County ex­ec­u­tive seeks to close dig­i­tal di­vide with plans for a $20 mil­lion high-speed net­work

Fiber lines would cover ev­ery town

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - Sum­mer Hem­phill By San­dra Tan and Caitlin Dewey Jeremy Har­ris

County Ex­ec­u­tive Mark Polon­carz says he’s done wait­ing for pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions to close Erie County’s dig­i­tal di­vide, which has left thou­sands of res­i­dents in un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties with low-qual­ity or non-ex­is­tent in­ter­net ac­cess.

So, Polon­carz wants the county to bor­row $20 mil­lion to lay down roughly 360 miles of fiber lines – enough to bring high-speed in­ter­net ac­cess to ev­ery town and city in Erie County, from Grand Is­land to Sardinia and from the West Side to the East Side of Buf­falo.

A pre­lim­i­nary map criss­crossed with bright pur­ple lines shows how a new county-owned net­work would di­rectly con­nect schools, li­braries and govern­ment build­ings. It would also cre­ate a back­bone that lo­cal in­ter­net ser­vice providers could tap into for the build-out of “the last mile” to res­i­den­tial homes, he said. Busi­nesses and em­ploy­ers that are will­ing to pay for a di­rect con­nec­tion would also be hooked up to the county net­work.

“In the new Erie County, we’re not leav­ing any­body be­hind,” said Polon­carz, who will for­mally roll out his ErieNet ini­tia­tive dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s State of the County ad­dress at the Al­bright-Knox Art Gallery.

The plan would make Erie County one of the largest mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the coun­try to op­er­ate this type of net­work, which re­lies on lo­cal in­ter­net providers to build out home con­nec­tions and re­sell high-speed ac­cess to con­sumers. Lo­cal con­nec­tiv­ity ad­vo­cates say the plan could vastly im­prove ac­cess in un­der­served ar­eas and lower in­ter­net prices across the board – though some also ex­pressed skep­ti­cism about small providers’ ca­pac­ity to build out thou­sands of in­di­vid­ual con­nec­tions.

“It’s one of the most pro­gres­sive ideas I’ve seen in lo­cal pol­i­tics in a long time,” said San­jay Gi­lani, who re­cently re­tired as the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer at Buf­falo Pub­lic Schools. If the county suc­cess­fully im­ple­ments its plan, he added, it would be a “game changer.”

A county-owned broad­band net-

work could po­ten­tially ex­tend cut­ting-edge in­fra­struc­ture to com­mu­ni­ties that ma­jor ser­vice providers have over­looked be­cause they are un­prof­itable, said lo­cal tele­com at­tor­ney Martha Buyer. Those ar­eas in­clude ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, such as Alden, Collins and Mar­illa, as well as Buf­falo.

Polon­carz will also use his State of the County ad­dress to pro­pose a new “dig once” pol­icy that will en­able pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies to lay their own lines in con­duits run­ning along­side ac­tive county road and sewer con­struc­tion projects. He is also push­ing for county reg­u­la­tions to guide the in­stal­la­tion of 5G net­works, the new­est wave in wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Oth­er­wise it will be the Wild West,” he said. “Lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have no say, but the county does. This is a big is­sue na­tion­wide.”

Clos­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide

The Buf­falo News re­ported last month that in­ter­net speeds in Buf­falo and Erie County are among the slow­est in the coun­try. Of the 10 wired in­ter­net providers that op­er­ate in the Buf­falo Ni­a­gara re­gion, only Spec­trum of­fers broad­band through­out Buf­falo. And its av­er­age speeds fall be­low bench­marks else­where, ac­cord­ing to speed-test­ing ser­vices.

While wealth­ier sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties in the re­gion have high­grade net­works with su­per­fast down­load speeds, most of Buf­falo and ru­ral towns to the south and east do not. That gap – along with De­cem­ber cen­sus data that showed more than half of house­holds lack in­ter­net in pock­ets of Buf­falo, Lock­port and Ni­a­gara Falls – have alarmed lo­cal ed­u­ca­tors and politi­cians, who say stu­dents and adults need home in­ter­net to be suc­cess­ful.

“I think if the county is will­ing to step in and in­vest in this, it serves ev­ery­one,” Buyer said.

Back­ers also pre­dict the new in­fra­struc­ture plan may en­able small, lo­cal providers to en­ter a mar­ket long dom­i­nated by Ver­i­zon and Spec­trum, po­ten­tially driv­ing prices down. The plan mir­rors sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives in south­ern Vir­ginia, Washington State and the South­ern Tier, where lo­cal gov­ern­ments have cov­ered the high up­front costs of build­ing a re­gional fiber back­bone and then turned over de­ploy­ment to pri­vate ser­vice providers.

In the South­ern Tier, for in­stance, lo­cal in­ter­net provider Em­pire Ac­cess has built a large res­i­den­tial fiber net­work off the South­ern Tier Net­work, a govern­ment-owned back­bone. Through it, the com­pany now of­fers down­load speeds of up to 1 gi­ga­bit for $65 per month in cities like Corn­ing and Elmira.

By com­par­i­son, Spec­trum charges the same rate for its most ba­sic in­ter­net pack­age, which prom­ises top speeds one-tenth as fast as the gi­ga­bit plan. The in­ter­net gi­ant dropped the lo­cal price of some pack­ages af­ter Em­pire Ac­cess en­tered the mar­ket, said Jim Baase, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of Em­pire Ac­cess.

Em­pire Ac­cess now hopes to use the pro­posed Erie County back­bone to ex­pand west, though it has made no for­mal com­mit­ment to that ef­fect.

“Once Erie County builds out its net­work, we would con­tract with them to get around Erie County and then build out in the com­mu­ni­ties,” Baase said. “We would go into a com­mu­nity like the city of Buf­falo and add fiber up and down vir­tu­ally ev­ery street. It’s a large pro­ject.”

Ma­jor hur­dles

But the South­ern Tier is one of the few un­qual­i­fied suc­cess sto­ries for this par­tic­u­lar model of broad­band ac­cess, cau­tions Christo­pher Mitchell, the direc­tor of the com­mu­nity broad­band ini­tia­tive at the na­tional pol­icy group In­sti­tute for Lo­cal SelfReliance.

Other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have in­vested heav­ily in their fiber back­bones only to find pri­vate providers aren’t in­ter­ested in go­ing the “last mile.” As many as 30 cities and coun­ties have ended up build­ing their own home con­nec­tions, which can cost mil­lions, when no providers stepped in to do it.

“The cost is in­cred­i­ble,” said Sam Mar­razzo, the chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer at the Buf­falo Ni­a­gara Med­i­cal Cam­pus. “I don’t see how it could be done. Un­less (a small provider) has deep pock­ets or ac­cess to other fund­ing … At the end of the day, it would be very costly to run that in­fra­struc­ture.”

Mar­razzo said he would pre­fer to see the county part­ner with in­cum­bent play­ers on a long-term so­lu­tion to the re­gion’s con­nec­tiv­ity prob­lems. And he ex­pressed con­cerns about the

Fiber down­load speeds

Max­i­mum avail­able megabits per sec­ond county’s plans to reg­u­late the small­cell wire­less tow­ers that mo­bile in­ter­net providers will one day use to de­ploy 5G in­ter­net, par­tic­u­larly since Buf­falo has al­ready passed an or­di­nance as­sess­ing fees on the cells. The county’s pro­posed reg­u­la­tions would also as­sess a yet-un­spec­i­fied li­cens­ing fee, ac­cord­ing to draft leg­is­la­tion, as well as re­quire providers to meet a range of tower de­sign and lo­ca­tion spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

Time­line and costs

Polon­carz said his goal is for the county to be­gin con­nect­ing lines by 2020 and bring the lat­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion speeds to all parts of the county by 2021. To do that, he will need ap­proval from the Erie County Leg­is­la­ture to bor­row the money, and ap­proval from the City of Buf­falo to lay down lines within the city lim­its.

“The city could do it, but it’s only for the city,” he said. “We have this big in­fra­struc­ture – the county roads. We own and con­trol it. We’re the log­i­cal choice. We would need to get per­mis­sion in the city, but I can’t see why the city would re­ject it if the county is will­ing to in­vest the money to do it.”

Though the county would have to make the ini­tial out­lay of money to cre­ate the govern­ment-owned fiber net­work and spend $1 mil­lion a year to main­tain it, he said, the county would even­tu­ally see a re­turn on its in­vest­ment through the leas­ing of its lines to pri­vate busi­nesses and ser­vice providers. County Chief In­for­ma­tion Of­fi­cer Michael Bree­den said he an­tic­i­pates the county would make back its in­vest­ment in five to six years af­ter the net­work is up and run­ning, based on a con­sul­tant’s re­port.

The typ­i­cal time­line for this type of pro­ject to be­come budget-neu­tral is 20 years, said Ernesto Fal­con, a lawyer for Elec­tronic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, a na­tional dig­i­tal rights group.

The ErieNet proposal is based off a study com­pleted by the Rochester area-based ECC Tech­nolo­gies in 2017. Vice Pres­i­dent Matthew Crider said the com­pany had a broad­band de­signer drive all the ma­jor ar­te­ri­als in Erie County over a two-week pe­riod, fo­cus­ing pri­mar­ily on more ru­ral ar­eas that aren’t ma­jor pop­u­la­tion hubs.

They also stud­ied maps from in­ter­net ser­vice providers that were will­ing to share the in­for­ma­tion about where fiber op­tic ca­bles ex­ist now.

“That kind of told us where are the ar­eas that are crit­i­cally un­der­served, where there is very lit­tle in­fra­struc­ture,” Crider said.

The hard work ahead will be fi­nal­iz­ing the pre­lim­i­nary de­sign for ErieNet and find­ing a way to make it sus­tain­able, he said.

“That’s why it’s im­por­tant to have these car­ri­ers as part­ners,” he said. “If you re­ally want to get Erie County on par with some other ma­jor met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas in the coun­try, that in­fra­struc­ture has to get built one way or another.”

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